Fields of yellow flowers across Europe could soon be producing a harvest of rubber and nickel for use in industry, helping to reduce reliance on imports by creating a home-grown source of raw materials. When a passenger jet touches down, the rubber that cushions the landing comes from trees grown in Asia. This is the same rubber found at the business end of your car tyres and in thousands of other products because natural rubber from trees is still far superior to synthetic rubber in how it absorbs energy and bounces back. However, the EU currently imports all of its natural rubber and there are concerns that the trees in Southeast Asia, which accounts for more than 90 % of our supply, can be vulnerable to diseases. One of the answers is for Europe to grow its own rubber, not as trees, but as flowers that are a familiar sight along roadsides – dandelions.
‘We are really dependent on the imports of rubber from Southeast Asia,’ said Dr Ingrid van der Meer, at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. ‘One threat to this rubber source is a fungus that already did a lot of damage to plantations in South America. We wanted to find a new source of natural rubber.’
She coordinates the EU-funded DRIVE4EU project, which is sewing fields of the rubber dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz) – also known as the Russian dandelion – which looks similar to the bright yellow dandelion seen in gardens. The aim is to harvest them for natural rubber and a chemical that can be converted into biodegradable plastic.
A previous project, EU-PEARLS, completed in 2012, showed that the quality of this dandelion’s rubber was as good as from rubber trees. Two tyres from dandelions were made by Apollo, a tyre-making company, and displayed last October at a scientific conference in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Dandelions are now being selected and bred so their roots can contain 15 % rubber, three times the amount in wild dandelions. Another aim of DRIVE4EU is to ensure dandelions can be profitable to farmers.